Den of Thieves doesn’t have much going for it even before it stumbles out of the gate. It’s written, produced, and directed by Christian Gudegast, and if you haven’t heard of him that’s because his only other credits were as the screenwriter for London Has Fallen and A Man Apart. Not exactly stellar bullet points. It stars Gerard Butler, who in kinder times has been a marquee name, but more recently starred in a movie about a satellite that tried to kill the world through changing the weather. It co-stars Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and a host of other unknowns, and is yet another in a long line of cops and robbers films where women exist only to engage the male pathos — in this case, there’s Butler’s wife, whom he cheats on until she tearfully leaves him, resulting in his own self-examination (but no actual changes to his lifestyle). There’s also Jackson’s daughter, whose prom date he threatens with violence. And then there’s a host of strippers and prostitutes. Don’t go expecting female empowerment.
The characters are wholly unlikable, particularly Butler’s Nick O’Brien, a profane, obnoxious, excessively violence-prone cop who drinks, pops pills, and cheats on his wife. He’s the supposed protagonist. He has a small posse of fellow cops who are part of the same LA Major Crimes unit tasked with finding a group of high-tech, highly skilled bank robbers. That’s essentially all there is to the film — Group A wants to rob a bank, Group B wants to stop them. The plans are incredibly complex and the cops are basically a basket of blunt instruments.
Den of Thieves desperately wants to be an updated take on Heat, but with none of the subtlety and quiet nuance (or the immensely talented cast) of that film. It also thinks it’s being clever and subverting the genre, by writing the cops as a group of unlikable goons and the criminals as sophisticated schemers who look out for their brothers. And the latter almost works, thanks to the two best performances in the film — the chameleon-like Pablo Schreiber as Ray Merrimen, the quietly menacing ringleader; and O’Shea Jackson Jr., making good on the potential he showed in Straight Outta Compton and Ingrid Goes West, as Donnie, their beleaguered wheelman. Both of them are consistently solid performers standing out in a decidedly lackluster crowd.
If the film has a weakest spot, it’s painfully obvious that it’s Butler, whose gruff, barking asshole archetype fails miserably here. It’s too much. Too much loudness, too much getting in people’s faces, too much growling confrontations with literally everyone. There’s no joy to watching him onscreen. His character is both terribly written and poorly acted.
If the film has a strong point, it’s the heist itself, which is gripping and intricately plotted. It’s smart and fun to watch both in planning and execution, even if the inevitable loud, protracted gun battle in the streets (hello again, dime-store Heat knockoff) is high on noise but low on innovation.
I’d love to say that it’s worth watching Den of Thieves for the heist alone, and for Schreiber and Jackson’s slightly more subtle performances. That would be untrue. Its weaknesses substantially outweigh its strengths. Instead of being a Heat for the 21st century, it’s a dinosaur. It’s savage and unpleasant, with too few moments of genuine excitement and too many moments of crass male toxicity. It treats its women like trash and treats its men like cutouts; it shows cops as renegade monsters who answer to no one. It’s gracelessly violent when it doesn’t need to be, and humorlessly bleak. Den of Thieves stinks like a burning paper mill, a smoldering pyre of misogyny and cheap stereotypes, bad acting, and worse writing. Avoid it at all costs.